Can school leaders learn from political leaders or is it vice versa?

New leaders have recently been elected in the U.S. and France. Germany and the U.K. will soon elect their own. Elected leaders put themselves forward with visions of better times. They appear confident and strong. They paint vivid pictures of the horizon. They thrive but also suffer through social media. School leaders perform similar high wire acts. They too have manifestos in which they set out how they will lead. They are also subject to the same pressures as political leaders; the pressures of success and failure. They may not face the perils of the ballot box but they do face the daily courts of students, parents, governors and members of the local community.

Like politics, leading a school can be messy.

In this General Election, we have been bombarded by the phrase ‘strong and stable leadership’. Is it what the country needs? Is it what schools need? Do strong leaders make effective school leaders? We normally think of strong leaders as those who maximise their power and who make the ‘big’ decisions; is that the same as effective leadership? Where does humility fit in? Is a better model of leadership one in which collective leadership is paramount; accepting that colleagues “may perhaps be wiser than oneself” as Clement Attlee once said?

Teachtalks invited Jill Berry, former headteacher, now leadership consultant and author, to look at:

Why leadership is so important in these testing times….

Research suggests that leadership is second only to the quality of teaching when it comes to successful pupil achievement (Barber et al, 2010; Leithwood et al, 2006). The two are, of course, closely connected, as leaders at all levels in schools appoint staff, and then (we hope) go on to encourage, support, challenge and inspire them. Well-led, teachers and support staff are far more likely to be their best, to be prepared to expend discretionary effort (which can be described as what you do, over and above what you have to do in order to avoid getting the sack…) and to feel valued and professionally fulfilled. In these current challenging times, when teacher recruitment and retention are causing significant concern; when budgets are under pressure and painful economies may be necessary; when well-being and mental health in schools (of students and staff) are a hot topic and when curriculum and assessment change comes at such a pace that everyone at times seems to be struggling to catch their breath, it seems to me that strong leadership is even more important. I suggest four reasons why this is the case:

  1. Leaders have to recognise that unless those they lead feel appreciated and have a healthy sense of their own worth, it will become even more difficult to recruit staff of the right calibre into our schools, and to keep them there – especially when times are tough. Trust has to be built and strengthened over time, rather than eroded. We will inevitably lose good people if they feel they are not trusted and cannot trust those to whom they look for leadership.
  2. When managing tight budgets, leaders have to make difficult decisions, but they need to ensure they have strong vision and values and clearly defined moral purpose to guide them through such decisions. How can they ‘balance the books’ while still preserving and protecting what is most important – and are they clear about (and do they clearly communicate) what this is?
  3. Those who lead in our schools have a double challenge of overseeing and positively managing the well-being of staff while at the same time finding and maintaining a sustainable balance in their own personal and professional lives. Without such a balance, we risk burning out and dropping out. This requires sensitivity, empathy, a strong sense of proportion and a clear focus on what is reasonable and workable. Can we do less, but do it better, and can leaders show us the way?
  4. Leaders at all levels need to ensure that we are not simply engaged in ‘busy work’, but that we spend our time and energies on what is most productive. As we manage curriculum and assessment change, can we work together, learn from each other (across as well as within schools) so that we introduce such change efficiently and effectively, seeing and securing opportunities to make our schools better? The leaders set the tone and make the weather.

Robertson (2006) said; “When things are quiet, leaders need to be motivating. When things are chaotic, they need to be a steadying influence, and in a crisis they need to be strong and provide direction.”

The time is now. Are you up to the task?



Barber, M., Whelan, F., Clark, M. (2010) Capturing the leadership premium, McKinsey

Leithwood, K., Day, C., Sammons, P., Harris, A., Hopkins, D. (2006) Seven strong claims about successful school leadership Nottingham : National College for School Leadership

Robertson, I. (2006) Manage the pressure – and find your resilience

Jill Berry

Jill is a former headteacher, now leadership consultant and author. Her latest book is "Making The Leap:Moving from Deputy to Head".

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